SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Sam is a 15-year-old teenager and team captain of his soccer team. He enjoys being with friends, playing guitar and has a girlfriend. He had an unexpected fight with another teammate.
Afterward, he has become obsessed with his relationships with the team. He is worried constantly about what they and others say about him. He also has some unexplained and unusual outbursts of anger.
When worried, he feels tension in his shoulders, stomach and legs. His heart races and sometimes he finds it difficult to breathe. He has difficulty sleeping due to worrying and frequent wakening. He generally feels tired and irritable.
Because one of his best friend’s mothers took Mental First Aid Training, she notices he sits atop a slippery slope. Worsening issues could lead to more severe physical and emotional problems and include substance abuse.
She contacts his mother and father, and together the three charted an immediate approach to persuade him he needed some help — right away.
This is a composite story with parts that could be in anyone’s life, whether a teenager or an adult. The symptoms are real. Early intervention is like first aid for a wound becoming infected. It can make a difference between a more serious problem or appropriate remedy.
Mental Health First Aid is real and more people should learn about it, say its advocates.
A national course in Mental Health First Aid is offered in South County and divided between independent study and an online interactive class. It is free of charge to anyone over 18 years-old.
“Mental health problems are extremely common. The more of us who have an understanding, the more we can open the dialogue to help,” said Susan Orban, director of Healthy Bodies Healthy Minds, a Washington County community-health collaborative sponsoring the training.
Her thoughts about the local issues are mirrored in a just-released report “2021 - The State of Mental Health in America.”
This study by advocacy group Mental Health America used state and federal data to make its assessments. It covered all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Some key national highlights are:
Young people are struggling most with their mental health. The proportion of youth ages 11-17 who accessed screening was 9% higher than the average in 2019.
More people are reporting frequent thoughts of suicide and self-harm than have ever been recorded in the MHA Screening program since its launch in 2014.
Rates of suicidal ideation are highest among youth, especially LGBT youth. In September 2020, over half of 11-17-year-olds reported having thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than half or nearly every day of the previous two weeks.
Suicidal ideation among adults is increasing. The percentage of adults in the U.S. who are experiencing serious thoughts of suicide increased by an additional 460,000 people from the last dataset.
People screening at risk for mental health conditions are struggling most with loneliness or isolation. From April to September 2020, 70% screened showed moderate-to-severe symptoms of anxiety or concerns about isolation.
The number of people looking for help with anxiety and depression has skyrocketed. From January to September 2020, 315,220 people took the anxiety screen, a 93% increase over the 2019 total number of anxiety screens.
The number of people screening with moderate to severe symptoms of depression and anxiety has continued to increase throughout 2020 and remains higher than rates prior to COVID-19.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in August that symptoms of anxiety had tripled and depression symptoms had quadrupled among a group of 5,470 adults as compared with a survey sample from 2019.
During late June, 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling for mental health and substance abuse, according to the CDC.
For teens and younger children, the issues can be more acute. Orban and other professionals said that the pandemic is leaving younger members of society feeling uncertainty, fear and isolation.
Separation from friends due to distance learning has brought loss. Compounding this everyday loss are canceled or modified traditions like proms, graduations and sports practices, games and team camaraderie, mental health professionals explained.
For some teens in the turbulence of adolescence, the struggle has deepened. In others these events triggered an awakening of dormant problems. Some experienced some profound mental health issue for the first time, they said.
Benefits of Mental Health First Aid
The Mental Health First Aid course can help develop skills to identify these issues.
It is slightly different from psychological first aid because it aims to target people experiencing issues even before a crisis erupts. However, it includes helping those in immediate crisis.
The method, created by two educators in Australia, has been taught to almost 4% of that nation’s 25 million citizens—and its inventors are eager to reach 10%, which would match or exceed the country’s first-aid trainees for physical injuries.
It has now spread through many communities in the United States due to funding from federal grants.
Orban in a recent interview said that South County Healthy Bodies Healthy Mind’s goal is to match that 10% in Washington County.
COVID-19 trauma, including job losses, general fears, isolation and losses of loved ones or friends, has only increased the need for people to consider enrolling in the training, she said. The program helps people to:
Recognize the signs that a person may be dealing with a mental health challenge.
Reach out to a person who may be dealing with a mental health challenge.
Ask a person whether s/he is considering killing her/himself.
Actively and compassionately listen to a person in distress.
Offer a distressed person basic “first-aid” level information and reassurance about mental health problems.
Assist a person who may be dealing with a mental health problem or crisis to seek professional help.
Assist a person who may be dealing with a mental health problem or crisis to connect with appropriate community, peer, and personal supports.
Be aware of their own views and feelings about mental health problems and disorders.
Recognize and correct misconceptions about mental health, substance use and mental illness.
For the past six years, HBHM and the Washington County Coalition for Children ran all trainings in person, at schools for teachers, at hospitals for medical staff, at houses of worship for religious leaders, community centers for groups, and other settings.
“The new model falls into two parts. Part A is entirely self-paced. You study a group of online materials for roughly two hours at any times that work for you. Part B is instructor-led on Zoom on set dates, with peers who want to help others like you do,” Orban said.
It all comes together, she said, for the pre-emptive strike against a mental health issue.
“It’s a matter of addressing needs before getting to ER - more and more people of all ages are going to ER for help. There’s not enough staff and, in addition, the ER is not a good environment for kids in crisis to be in,” she said.
“For too long we assumed we don’t know what to do about this and shrug our shoulders and wait for the experts to come in,” Orban added.
Anyone interested in the program should contact Donna Greene of HBHM for more information and to register for either course. She can be reached at (401) 788-2371 or by email at email@example.com.